On the passing of my grandfather

When we were young, his voice was intimidating. It boomed from within his barrel chest, part military general and part thundercloud.

My sister and I would enter the house and hear him calling out to greet us:

HellOH! HellOOH! HellOOOH!

And we’d call back, in our best imitation of his warm salute. Our grandfather.

When you love someone with dementia, every day is a goodbye. Watching his memories slip away was the most painful journey, more painful than ultimately losing him on an arbitrary day in January, when he slipped finally into rest.

Because when he died, he could not remember who or why or where he was. Because he no longer remembered how he’d led this extraordinary life, or recognized those who loved and surrounded him and now lovingly fed him dinner each night.

Because he lived a life worth holding on to, I choose now to remember.

First, I remember the last time we saw each other. Christmas Eve, when he looked at me and lit up from within. When he came out from the fog and said my name for the first time in year. When he joked and asked about my husband, and how much I’d spent Christmas shopping.

I remember holding his hand and exchanging “I Love Yous” for a fleeting moment, before he fell back to whatever plane you go to when the fog takes hold.

In fact, I remember Christmases with him most of all.

What was it that made him so keen to build a miniature Swiss mountain range in the living room? What compelled him to set up three different trees throughout the house? Or to collect hundreds of Department 56 houses and tiny flocked Snowbabies, or to do everything he could to create magic for two little girls in flannel nightgowns?

I never got a chance to ask. But I remember those years of my childhood with a kind of wonder.

Though I’m an adult now, holding his hand just weeks ago reminded me of a time that typically meant going home with a mountain of noisy toys. When we’d start dinner breaking thin wafers into pots of honey, a Czech tradition to ensure good luck in the New Year.

I remember summers, too, when my sister and I lavished in several indulgent weeks at “Pop Pop and Grandma Camp”, filling our bellies with chocolate Tastykakes and falling asleep by the pool.

I hope in the end, his brain let him go back to those hot amusement park days when we tackled Virginia’s scariest wooden roller coasters. I can still feel the weight of him, crushing me as we turned the corners round and round, hurtling through the sky together on a rickety track. I was 9 or 10, and he was a giant squeezed into a tiny metal cart.

But that was my grandfather.

I remember the way he loved his sons. How he tried to be a good father, and a different man when they were older. To make up for shortcomings. To make up for loss.

I remember his craftsmanship. That he took pride in his work, whether it was educating his students, or crafting the perfect treehouse from his own two hands. One year, he built a wooden train and caboose for the backyard, big enough to stand in and perfect for secret clubs or hide and seek.

Even when his mind was so far away, he peppered recent conversations with questions about college or building a house. That part never left him.

I remember the inherent silliness of a tall man, formidable in size and influence but with a goofy smile. His voice carried, in a deep measured tone that made him seem constantly prepared to give a commencement speech or hand down discipline. But he was gentle to children, animals and strangers. He loved his dogs. He loved his wife.

Now that he’s gone, I remember so many little details about our lives together and find myself wanting to share each little piece of him with the world.

Because I’ve spent the past two years saying goodbye to him over and over, as each memory was cruelly stripped away. He was the only grandfather I’d ever known, and will ever know, and he deserves to be remembered.

His name was John. He loved Huskies, yard sales and Broadway plays. When he sneezed, he’d sneeze seven times in a row.

And he was magnificently unforgettable.